Hiking the Subway Top-Down Trail Description – The Left Fork of North Creek in Zion National Park, also known as the Subway, is one of the park’s more popular and iconic hikes, taking you along (and through) the river to a tube-like, undercut slot canyon resembling an urban subway tunnel. It had become so popular, the crowding had put a strain on the land so a permit system was implemented, including an advance lottery, with only 80 permits given out per day. There are two routes used to complete the hike – one from the top-down, requiring rappelling (up to 30′), short down-climbs, and swimming through pools, and the second from the bottom-up, which is non-technical and no (mandatory) swimming. After receiving a very minimal rappelling lesson, my second time around, I opted for the latter.
I was kind of nervous at the top of the first obstacle, a 20′ rappel down the face of a boulder. I wasn’t nervous because of the height, but because I was teaching 3 other people how to rappel and I had only had a brief informal 45-minute lesson from a friend. For any reason if something went wrong, I felt it was on me. During my quick lesson, I had someone to arrest the line if I screwed up – that wasn’t an option in this scenario; I was the first one over and as confident as I was that everything was set correctly, there was still a small feeling of doubt.
Completely unfounded doubt.
It was so easy.
To be cliche once again, this hike was the experience of a lifetime.
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Trailhead: Wildcat Canyon Trailhead. *The route requires a shuttle (or hitch-hike). The trail ends at the Left Fork Trailhead, only about 8 miles up Kolab Terrace Rd. Park one car there and take the other car to Wildcat Canyon.
Distance: Roughly 9.5 miles, according to NPS.gov and other sites. However, our GPS logged 7.5 miles before running out of battery somewhere around Arch Angel Falls. We estimated approximately 11 miles.
Time: 6-12 hours. (As first time rappellers and photographers, it took us 11 hours. It could definitely be done quicker.)
Rating: “Strenuous,” and semi-technical (Full description below.)
Elevation Change: 1000ft descent to the left fork, another 1000ft gradual descent through the left fork, and a 400-ft ascent from bottom of canyon back to the Left Fork trailhead. Again, our dead-GPS logged more vertical, but I can’t say how much for sure.
Permits: Required (except November to March, due to low demand)
Gear: Rappelling gear (60′ rope, harness), webbing, and rapid links. Wet suit (not dry suit!!) and dry bags are technically optional, but…
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The initial approach is easy, marked with signs and cairns. Follow the trail about a mile stay left at the first trail junction, The Hop Valley Connector. There’s a sign marking the turn. Shortly after (0.2mi / 300yrds), head right (South) at the second trail, Northgate Peaks Trail. There’s a sign marking the turn. After only about .2 mi on Northgate, leave the trail to the left onto an unmaintained but well-cairned trail into a slickrock bowl. There is a sign marking the start of the Subway route. Head down and right on the slickrock and into the forest.
You’ll come out on a ridge – the trail will head left dropping in to Russell Gulch. Russell Gulch is a wide slickrock valley with many different layers. Look for trail indicators and don’t just walk down the watercourse. The trail crosses Russell Gulch rather than descending it. If you descend into the gulch, you can end up with a 100’ rappel. Cross the watercourse and continue on the same level on the opposite side, climbing a slickrock pass.
Descend the slickrock bowl and pick up the trail at the end heading into the woods.
You’ll come to an overlook above the Left Fork.
Scramble down the steep sand gully a few hundred feet to intersect with the Left Fork. You should be in the canyon, which in May 2014, was the first water pool we came to and had to cross.
In the Canyon:
The first major obstacle comes up pretty quickly after the gully-descent. There is a large boulder blocking the canyon with a short rappel down the front side. Looking down canyon, there is a slot to the right with another, shorter rappel, but it’s at an awkward angle. In May 2014, there was a log wedged in that slot that we could have probably down-climbed, but it seemed safer and easier rappelling right down the front.
After that rappel, you quickly come to the first mandatory swim. To say, “It was cold!” would be an understatement. At Zion Adventure’s advice, we had only rented dry suits as opposed to wet suits. Since dry suits are more like overalls/waders and don’t keep all the water out, we might as well have just been in board shorts and t-shirts.
The canyon really closes in and you hop down a small waterfall.
Bowling Ball Corridor is the next feature that’s marked with a bowling ball like stone stuck in the narrow walls above the water. We debated about pulling out the rope again here (there was an anchor), but decided to just hop the 4-5′ down another waterfall in to the waist deep pool. This pool floor gives way, requiring a mandatory swim (20-40′) underneath the bowling ball and unfortunately a log has jammed below the bowling ball requiring near-full submersion to get through as well as less-photogenic images… (This was our last mandatory swim.)
Keyhole Falls marks the entrance to the actual subway-like feature section. This was actually the smallest rappel, but the most nerve-racking for me. The anchors are set up so that you are standing on wet rocks and need to lean out and over the falls to set the rope. Then it’s just an awkward angle to rappel at. BUT, It turned out to be super easy. And awesome.
Follow the cold pools down to a giant alcove with a big log wedged in it (North Pole). After North Pole and some more small waterfalls, the canyon will open up a bit.
You then come out above the main Subway section that can be seen from the bottom-up route. This is also where things changed from the route we had read about… We were expecting to cross the river on logs that had been wedged above the 10′ “waterfall room,” but those logs had been washed away since we had been there only two weeks ago. You used to cross those logs, traverse about 40′ on the ledge, and perform a rappel down a gradual 30′ slope. Instead, there are now anchors bolted in to the rocks to the right as you look into the Subway. It’s now a 30′ (??) rappel straight down in to the water in the slot between the waterfall room and the main mouth of the subway.
Don’t head to the main Subway section yet… to the left is the Waterfall Room.
The water got sternum-deep, but if it was any higher, getting out in to the mouth may have required a swim. This was the end of the true “canyoneering” section – wet/dry suits off and harnesses can be packed away.
Then simply follow the bottom-up route (in reverse) back out – past the crack, down Arch Angel Falls, back and forth across the river, and climb back to the Left Fork Trail Head.